Who Was Robin Hood?
Outlaw and folk hero Robin Hood and his Merry Men entertain King Richard the Lionheart in Sherwood Forest. Painted in 1839. Artist dates: 1806 - 1870. Source: (Photo by Daniel Maclise Fine Art Photographic/Getty Images)
The legend of Robin Hood and his Merry Men have had an enduring legacy upon history starting with English folklore and continuing with the latest iteration of the bandit on television and cinema. For over half a millennia, scholars have argued over the historicity of Robin Hood with a variety of different takes on the subject.
Regardless if he is real or not, the green-clad folk hero’s hold on culture and imagination has been an inspiration for the ages. The motif of a simple, but just and happy warrior who fights against an oppressive government to bring aid to those being oppressed speaks as much to people today as it did during the High Middle Ages.
The first known reference to Robin Hood is found in an alliterative Middle English poem titled “Piers Plowman” by William Langland. Written in the late 14th century, the poem only makes a passing reference to “Robyn Hood.” A translation of the text reads: “Although I can’t recite the Lord’s Prayer, I do know the rhymes of Robin Hood.” Since this line was in the poem spoken by a commoner and it refers to common rhymes, scholars believe that the traditional tales of Robin Hood were developing as early as the 12th century.
There is little evidence pointing to a specific person who was Robin Hood. This does not necessarily mean that there wasn’t a real Robin Hood and that he wasn’t a figment of the popular imagination or the creation of a balladeer. The name Robin is a diminutive of Robert which was a very common name in the middle ages. The surname “Hood” was also common and referred to a maker of hoods or more significantly as a person who wore hoods. Since outlaws were prone to wear hoods to disguise their identity existing criminal records of the Middle Ages refer to “Robert Hood” or “Robin Hood” for different persons who have violated the laws. Historians have identified other candidates for a real Robin Hood, but none of these holds up to complete scrutiny. It is the general consensus that there wasn’t a real Robin Hood.
A Social Bandit
The first ballads of Robin Hood appear in the fifteenth century which by that point the folklore about the bandit who robbed the rich and gave to the poor was well established. Most of the early literature has him as a yeoman, which was neither as high as a noble nor as low as a peasant. Other traditions have him placed as an earl. In either case, he had developed into what one writer described as a sympathetic “social bandit.”
These early ballads also place most of the action at Barnsdale Forest in South Yorkshire, it was only in the later literature did Sherwood Forest north of the city of Nottingham become more and more prominent. Sherwood was owned by the Norman kings who banned hunting and forestry in the woods. This made the forest a great hideout. The Sheriff of Nottingham who became Robin Hood’s arch-nemesis was the foil that tried to enforce the king’s laws. These early ballads were also very violent with lots of explicit murder and mutilations (in many cases performed by Robin).
By the 15th century, Robin Hood became associated with May Day celebrations where revelers would dress as the bandit and his merry men. Also by this time, the cast of Robin Hood’s followers such as Little John, Will Scarlet, and Much the Miller’s Son as well as his arch-enemies Guy of Gisborne and the Sheriff of Nottingham are well-established. Most importantly to history is Robin’s inspirational work at deceiving and defeating the upper classes to the benefit of the underclasses. Some historians explain this as the struggle by the Saxons (represented by Robin) against their new Norman masters.
In the 16th century, the Robin Hood legend began to mellow. New characters such as Friar Tuck and Robin’s love interest, Maid Marion, are introduced. Throughout the Elizabethan era, Robin Hood became more popular in plays and song. He also had become clearly aristocratic, losing his yeoman roots. Also, Robin Hood’s new nemesis, Prince John who has usurped the throne from his brother Richard the Lionheart begins to appear.
From the Elizabethan period until the early 19th century, Robin Hood became more satirical and clownish. However, in the early 19th century the outlaw began to see a renaissance with an appearance as Robin of Locksley in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819). It is Scott’s depiction of Robin Hood that has had the greatest impact on modern impressions of him as a cheerful, good-hearted, and just outlaw. This version was cemented in Howard Pyle’s children’s book, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (1883).
It is this version of Robin Hood that we know today since it was picked up in the Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn early 20th century films of the outlaw bandit. Robin Hood has also indelibly become a folk icon for outlaws such as Jesse James and James Dillinger who were perceived to be looking out for the “little guy.” Interestingly, during the McCarthy era, there was a movement to ban Robin Hood from the Indiana school curricula in 1954. Because Robin robbed from the rich to give to the poor, he was perceived as a communist. In response, students formed the “Green Feather Movement” which protested the proposal. Because of this, and just the ridiculousness of the idea, censoring Robin Hood never came to be.
Nowadays, there is a new take on the Robin Hood legend almost every couple of years and while it is very different superficially from those early tales, enough of the core story remains which makes Robin Hood an eternal historical and literary icon.